At fifty-plus, I had started, but not finished, three utterly unrelated graduate programs before I found my way to the low-residency world of MFA writing programs. In 2012, I was asked to speak for my graduating class, an ask I’m sure had at least a little to do with the fact that I have something to say about everything, and I have never, ever, been struck speechless. But behind that loud and brassy veneer is me, standing frozen in the middle of the junior high lunchroom with my plastic tray, looking for a familiar face near an empty seat before someone hip checks me and my tray, my milk, my whatever sad-excuse-for-a-school-lunch clatters to the floor with a noise so loud that everyone—everyone—turns, looks. And then laughs.
In my MFA application, I’d written: “I’m excited at the prospect of becoming an active part of the literary community, supporting the work of other writers and sharing ideas with a community of writers.”
It wasn’t complete crap, but it was half-crap. The truth was I’d wanted two years that were completely focused on me. My writing. My work. My brilliance. My future. My future brilliant work. That’s what I wanted. Luckily for me, it’s not what I got.
A community is created when something binds you together. A common memory, enemy, or problem; the same goal or a shared experience. Or a common language. We have something, we writers. We’re different. Not outcasts, or outsiders, we’re outliers. “Outlier” is a word used to describe phenomena that lie outside normal experience. We are phenomenal. And not normal.
Normal people don’t need a pencil to read a book. Deciding whether to use a comma, a colon, or my favorite, a semicolon does not keep them up at night. They aren’t looking for that single perfect sentence. It hasn’t even occurred to them that such a thing exists, and they will never know the joy in writing it. There is us, and there is them. They are not as obsessed with cats as we are. They do not have strong feelings about fonts, italics, or the use of—wait—dot dot dot, the ellipsis. They do not think of grammar and spelling as competitive sports.
But what is this essence the makes us tick, what exactly is this thing we have in common?
It’s the voices. The voices in our heads. That’s the tie that binds.
If you Google “voices in my head”—and I did—the first result is a letter in an advice column in which David from Arizona asks:
How can I make the voice in my head stop?
I am legally blind, diagnosed with depression, and have always been antisocial. For the last few months there has been a voice talking to me. It carries on normal conversations and remarks about the news, people, daily activities (don’t eat that, eat this instead), stay away from this or that person, your neighbors are watching you, etc. Can you give me suggestions on how to make the voice stop? Thank You
The good doctor responds (parens, mine):
What you are experiencing is not normal. (Then he talks very seriously about very serious things like bipolar issues, aging, schizophrenia, alcoholism, medication, and patients who believed they were Michael Jackson, or Jesus or Eva Braun. Then he says:) I don’t know why you’ve started hearing a voice but, there are things you can do to make it go away. Most people who hear voices find that they are worsened by being alone; being in very quiet places; or being under a lot of stress. Spend more time around other people, keep telling yourself the voice comes from a brain malfunction, and under no circumstances pay any heed to what the voice says.
And there it is. The thing we have in common with each other, with writers who came before us, and the ones who will come after. Family members, spouses, and non-writer friends of writers will want to pay close attention to this: We have voices. In our heads. Not one. Many. Multiple. There are entire conversations, whole worlds that live in our heads. They don’t come from a malfunction in our brain; they are the perfect function of our brain. And under no circumstances do we want them to go away. What we want is for them to land, fully formed, with back-story or in rhyming couplets, on the page.
For me, the voices—and I refer to them as ideas when I am in the world—the voices and the people they belong to stay locked away in a room in my head, in one of the many rooms in my head, and when they think it’s safe, the doors slide open like a scene from a prison movie. A switch is thrown, all the doors slide open at once, and one by one this motley crew steps out, and what had been a low rumble, just background noise, builds until it is just too damned loud to ignore. They all want to be heard, to be made real.
They want to live.
They come out of hiding when they think there is no chance of being recorded. When they think all the cameras are off. When I’m in the shower. Or taking a walk. When I’m late for work. At 4 a.m. when I have to be up at 6 a.m. And at 6 a.m. when I am covered in sleeping cats and cannot find my glasses, or a pen, or anything to write on.
Wherever I go, I carry three things: a camera, a notebook, and a pen. Multiple pens. One for each of the voices in my head. That may be excessive, but you need more than one—because one will invariably run out of ink right when your voices are being particularly clever, and I don’t want to miss a single word. Some of it is crap. A lot of it is babble. But I can guarantee you that that brilliant phrase, the sparkling idea, the twist and tweak that will make it all work, that will be gone by the time you get home. No matter how many times you repeat it in your head, the words will turn a corner and become something else.
So I repeat: Take notes.
My voices are particularly fond of speaking up when I’m doing seventy down the highway. I know, I know, don’t write while you drive. But, it’s always really good stuff I don’t want to lose. Before voice to text, I’d leave messages for myself on my answering machine. Usually, by the time I listened to the messages, I had no idea what I meant by, or where I intended to go with “Fart bubbles in the bathtub.”
Take detailed notes. Leave yourself complete messages.
I eavesdrop and transcribe. On the subway, on the street, in public bathrooms. Scribble hand drawn maps from remembered or imagined places. Take pictures of things that have, or will, figure significantly in a story I’m working on, will work on, might work on.
This. This is the thing we have in common. There are voices in my head that are not mine. There are people walking around in there that I haven’t even met yet. I know, with absolute certainty, that every writer has them too. Respect them. Record them. Tell their stories. Take notes.
I’d thought I wanted time to focus completely on my writing. But inside, I’m that girl with rubber bands holding up her knee socks, voices in her head, glasses sliding down her nose, and a library book tucked under her arm, looking for a friendly face and an open seat.
If I’d gotten what I wanted, my work would be no better now than it was when I walked through the door. I’d have missed two years writing, and talking with writers about writing and the big issues in life: Whether or not it is weird to cry about the imaginary backstory of your own characters; and How after staring at the same sentence for what feels like 45 minutes you can’t even be sure if what you are looking at are words anymore.
Writing is solitary, and we turn to each other to remind ourselves we’re not alone. I found a writing community I’d said I wanted, but I didn’t really know I needed, and they became my table in the junior high school lunchroom of life.
We write. It is what we do. If we did not do this, what would we do? We write, therefore, we am.